New Delhi- The commonly accepted notion is that the architects of the constitution were all men. In reality, 15 women were also part of the assembly. Among them, Dakshayani Velayudhan was the only Dalit woman. History often overlooks the contributions of the incredible activist-turned-politician. The leader vehemently opposed ‘untouchability’ and warned the Constituent Assembly members against the centralization of powers. Later, she also became a part of the provincial parliament.
Dakshayani Velayudhan was born on July 15, 1912, in Mulavukad, a small island in what is now the Ernakulam district of Kerala. She was a member of the Pulaya community, which suffered discrimination at the lowest rungs of the deeply oppressive caste system. The Pulayas primarily worked as poorly paid agricultural laborers and faced various forms of humiliation, including being prohibited from using public roads, maintaining a specific distance from upper-caste individuals, and women being forbidden from covering their upper bodies.
Despite numerous challenges, Dakshayani successfully completed her BSc in Chemistry at Maharaja's College. Subsequently, she enrolled in a teachers' training program at Madras University. Dakshayani overcame adversities and built a formidable identity that was impossible to ignore, even by those who initially opposed her admission. Dakshayani was also the first woman from her community to wear an upper garment while attending school.
In 1913, a significant event took place in Kochi known as the Kayal Sammelanam. Hundreds of Pulayas, including members of Velayudhan's family, gathered on small boats in the backwaters of Kerala since they were prohibited from assembling on land due to societal restrictions. This event had a profound impact on Dakshayani's life, and it is said that she requested that her biography be titled 'The Sea Has No Caste.' This phrase encapsulates her fight against discrimination and the prevailing caste system, emphasizing the idea that the sea, unlike society, does not differentiate between people based on their caste or social background.
In 1942, Dakshayani was transferred to a high school in Thripunithura, an area predominantly dominated by the upper caste. Disheartened by the discrimination she encountered and driven by her determination to make a positive impact on her community, she decided to seek a nomination, which was reserved for Scheduled Castes, to the Cochin Legislative Council. On August 2, 1945, Dakshayani addressed the council for the first time, and she delivered her speech in English.
In her speech, she highlighted the decreasing allocation of funds for the welfare of the depressed classes and advocated for a proportionate reservation in panchayats and municipalities. Dakshayani strongly criticized the practice of untouchability, labelling it as inhumane. She argued that as long as untouchability persisted, the term "Harijan" (a term used to refer to Scheduled Castes) held no meaning; it was akin to calling dogs "Napoleon."
On July 22, 1946, Dakshayani Velayudhan, known for her passionate and compelling speeches, became a member of the Constituent Assembly, a significant milestone in her life.
In the Constituent Assembly, a gathering of 389 distinguished individuals tasked with shaping India's future through its constitution, there were a mere 15 women present. Remarkably, among these women, Dakshayani Velayudhan stood out as the only Dalit woman. What set her apart even further was her age, as she was just 34 years old at the time.
Dakshayani's identity was complex and multi-faceted. She identified both as a Gandhian and an Ambedkarite, reflecting her commitment to both Mahatma Gandhi's principles of non-violence and B.R. Ambedkar's advocacy for the rights of marginalized communities. However, she was not confined by the ideologies of either figure. Instead, she courageously challenged both Gandhi and Ambedkar when their stances conflicted with her deeply held convictions.
Dakshayani Velayudhan's presence and contributions to the Constituent Assembly were emblematic of her independent thinking and unwavering dedication to social justice. She played a vital role in the constitutional discourse, advocating for the rights of Dalits and other marginalized communities, and her involvement remains an inspiring chapter in the history of India's struggle for equality and justice.
Dakshayani Velayudhan raised her voice within the Constituent Assembly against the concept of centralization of power as outlined in the Constitution. She believed that decentralization of power should be a core principle in the governance structure.
Crucially, Dakshayani strongly advocated for Article 11 in the Draft Constitution (which later became Article 17 of the Constitution). This particular article aimed at the abolition of Untouchability and the establishment of legal consequences for practicing it. She recognized the importance of this provision as a means to eradicate a deeply ingrained and discriminatory social practice. By supporting Article 11/17, she championed the cause of social justice and equality, asserting the need to legally combat Untouchability, which had been a deeply entrenched and oppressive custom in Indian society.
She expressed her disagreement with the existence of gubernatorial roles, as she had the foresight to anticipate potential conflicts arising when a governor appointed by a different political party at the central government came into disagreement with the state government.
Dakshayani's stance on decentralization and her emphasis on the inclusion of principles championed by leaders in the Constitution highlight her commitment to ensuring that the governing framework of independent India would reflect the ideals and values of those who had fought for the nation's freedom.
Ambedkar and the All India Scheduled Castes Federation (AISCF) made significant efforts to engage in negotiations with the Cabinet Commission and exert pressure on the British Government to secure separate electorates for the Scheduled Castes in the Constituent Assembly elections. In the June 18, 1946, issue of Jai Bheem, Velayudhan’s response was documented. In her statement regarding the Cabinet Mission's Proposals, she expressed her satisfaction that 'the idea of separate electorates for the Scheduled Castes has been put to rest in a respectful manner.'
She noted that this decision might not be welcomed by those who held communal and divisive views, which, she believed, were fostered by the British Government. She went on to predict that, in the long run, 'the Harijans' (Scheduled Castes) would come to appreciate the wisdom of the Cabinet Mission in reaching this decision.
Velayudhan and her husband held concurrent positions in the Provincial Parliament, which could be seen as a pioneering achievement, possibly making them the first Dalit couple to serve in the Parliament. This highlights their exceptional and trailblazing roles as political representatives within their community.
Dakshayani Velayudhan's commitment to civil society work persisted, with a specific focus on advocating for the rights of Dalits. In 1977, she took the initiative to establish Mahila Jagriti Parishad, an organization centered on advancing women's rights and empowerment, particularly in the city of Delhi. In recognition of her enduring impact, the Kerala Government introduced the Dakshayani Velayudhan award in 2019. This prestigious award is intended to honor and acknowledge women who have made significant contributions to the empowerment of women in the state of Kerala. It serves as a tribute to Dakshayani's legacy and encourages continued efforts to uplift and empower women in the region.